The evolution of bus travels in India - Part-1

Sometime in early 2000s:
It was about 2 years since we had moved to Mumbai from Coimbatore. It was perhaps the first time we were traveling to our hometown in Kerala after moving to Mumbai. We were traveling by road - my brother at the wheels of our Omni - he was the only driver in the family back then. We traveled via Ratnagiri, Panaji, Karwar, Mangalore, Kasaragod and Kozhikode. On the highway, spotted quite a lot of buses - owned by an operator called "Benzy". Those days, Benzy was the leading operator on the Mumbai-Thrissur route - buses took about 24 hours those days to cover the distance from Mumbai to Mangalore - and another 10 hrs or so to reach Thrissur! How do people travel such long distances by bus was the question I had in my mind back then. Buses were mostly used for short distances then. The longest journey I've experienced those days was between Coimbatore and Alappuzha - a distance of about 6 hours then. 
Premium buses of the yesteryears...

The luxuries offered by buses those days was a push-back seat, a colour television (buses had "Colour Video Coach" written in multi-colour those days) and most of them had fans! The push-back seats those days used springs, and pushing them back needed real muscle power. Air suspension appeared towards the end of the 20th century, came into common use in the first years of the 21st century. Sometime around this time, hydraulic gas spring based push-back seats also appeared - these seats are easier to push back and more passenger friendly. There were some buses offering air-conditioners as well. 

2002: The game changer year!
Volvo came to the Indian market sometime in 2002 - their selling point those days was that they built on a "true bus chassis", while all others in the market used "truck chassis" - a clever marketing strategy. The Volvo offered everything that were unheard of, those days. Volvo buses had front and rear air-suspension (the others were mostly only rear air-suspension), they had sealed glasses and individual air vents. A leading automobile magazine those days interviewed Volvo officials, and raised this question about sealed glasses - all the AC buses those days had open-able glass windows. Volvo went on to claim, open-able classes are provided when the manufacturer had a fear if the AC failed - Volvo was confident!
One of the initial models of Volvo

I remember seeing the first Volvo bus much before it was commercially launched - I spotted it during one of our Mumbai-Kerala runs, in Goa. The bus was operated by Sharma Transports - the bus had Volvo stickered all around. It later turned out that the bus I saw was the trial bus brought to India from China - this bus was tried by different operators including Sharma, the now defunct Puzhekkadavil, Karnataka SRTC, etc. The launch product looked fairly different from the trial product - the launch product was built locally. The chassis and engine came in from an international facility, while the body was being built by Azad at a facility in Bangalore. While they initially came with a 260hp engine, later refreshed the offering with a 290hp CRDi engine. Volvo changed the way people travelled - long journeys became shorter, and people got travelling long distances by bus.

My first ever Volvo journey was on a KSRTC (Karnataka) bus from Bangalore to Mumbai - an 18 hour journey! [Read my trip report of this trip, in 2006, here] This bus was surely a game changer - operators lapped up Volvos as they tried to get more people to take the bus. Volvos were a runaway hit on the Mumbai-Pune route - private operators and later MSRTC got into the game trying to get as must passengers on the bus with their swanky Volvos! Volvo had a competition free run for over 6 years - till Mercedes Benz came to India with their product.
One of the first few Volvo 9400s! After Volvo began producing bodies in house

Homegrown bus manufacturers Tata and Ashok Leyland did not take this intrusion but Volvo lying down. They came with their own premium products - the Tata Globus (initially sold as front engine variant, followed by a rear engine variant) and the Ashok Leyland Luxura (a rear engine product). Although these products were way better than the buses they sold until then, they weren't real match for the luxury offered by Volvo those days. However, a chassis launched by Ashok Leyland in the following days - the 12M Front Engine chassis truly took the travel industry by storm, and presently drives a revolution in the industry (more on that later). 

2008 - another game changing year!
This year is special for two reasons - Mercedes Benz launched their O-500-R 12m luxury coach. The did something similar to what Volvo did by getting in chassis from another country, and tying up with a local body builder - Mercedes picked up Sutlej as their partner to build the luxury coach. Volvo exited their tie-up with Jaico (Azad) and set up their own body building unit in 2008. In October the same year, Volvo launched the product that turned their fortunes for ever - the Volvo B9R. The most powerful bus on Indian roads then - with a 9 Litre engine churning out 340hp, and available in two variants - 12m and 13.7m. The 13.7m Multi-axle variant took over the market, and soon became the preferred product among passengers. I made my first ever multi-axle bus journey in 2009 (read here).
The Mercedes Benz 12m premium seater coach

Volvo B9R Multi-Axle coach

This year also saw an attempt by Isuzu to garner a share of the Indian bus market - they came in with the LT134PR bus. Initially sold as a 11.5m variant (later a 12m variant was launched), this bus did make some inroads. The bus was quite comfortable and a great experience as well [Read here]. This outing didn't last long - after sales support and reliability were major concerns, and this product slowly disappeared from the Indian bus industry soon later.
Isuzu LT134PR Coach

People turning up at ticketing offices asked if the bus was a "multi-axle" before booking their ticket. operators hiked their prices a little for the multi-axle as well. The Volvo multi-axle also meant doom for the just launched Mercedes Benz 12m product. Mercedes took some more time before they launched their own multi-axle product. Their multi-axle product came in 2010 - about 2 years after Volvo launched. This free run (not exactly two years, since the Volvo Multi-axle came in the last quarter of 2008, while the Mercedes Benz multi-axle came in the first quarter of 2010 - talking in terms of calender year. So thats a little over an year) meant Volvo sold quite well.
Mercedes Benz Multi-Axle coach, built by Sutlej

The Mercedes Benz multi-axle coach was a slow seller - much like the 12m sibling. Mercedes Benz was plagued by plenty of issues - the biggest being poor service support. The bus had a smaller luggage loading bay - this reduced the amount of cargo the buses could carry - cargo was a major source of revenue for operators then. Mercedes Benz fell off the radar for quite a lot of operators over the time. I was not a big fan of the Mercedes Benz buses - for two reasons - one, they had air vents that faced the window, and these weren't adjustable or closable - so that meant the passenger on the window seats get frozen; second - the seats weren't very comfortable. Mercedes Benz buses were noisy - but the body quality was quite good. My first journey on a 12m Mercedes Benz bus happened in 2010 - on a KSRTC bus from Bengaluru to Mysuru [Read here]. I wasn't very impressed with this product, though. I tried the multi-axle Mercedes Benz bus a year later, in 2011. This was a longer journey - and this journey quite impressed me [Read here].

Meanwhile, Volvo B9R was revolutionizing bus travel in India. Longer routes were getting launched - and buses were operating on routes like Hyderabad-Cochin, Bangalore-Ahmedabad, etc. This kept growing, and buses were operating routes that took like 30-32 hours to complete - and there were passengers who traveled end-to-end. The bus industry was capitalizing on the inability of the railways to run faster trains, and the higher fares for flights. Although low-cost flights did get more people to fly - flights were still considered to be out of reach for the common passenger.
The first Volvo B11R to hit Indian roads..

Towards the end of 2011 came Volvo's newest offering - the 14.5m Volvo B11R. This product was not a hot seller - operators saw no big change between the 13.7m Volvo B9R and the 14.5m Volvo B11R - the ride quality was fairly similar, while the latter offered 4 extra seats compared to the former. Sales of Volvo B11R was slow - they did extend trials to Karnataka RTC, which did not buy them initially. A large order for Volvo B11R was placed by the now defunct Kesineni Travels - who operated them on long routes. Although the bus was launched towards the end of 2011, the first bus hit the road only in early 2013. My first journey with the Volvo B11R happened on the first ever trip of the first B11R to hit the road - Kallada's KA-01-AC-40 [Read here]. The B11R offered slightly better ride dynamics - but there was nothing that would make the passengers demand a B11R over B9R.

Bus travel was revolutionized and Volvo enjoyed most fruits of this change in the way we Indians travelled. Volvo continued to be the market leader - the only competition it had was busy battling its own problems with after sales support leading to poor sales. Things took a bad turn towards the end of 2013 - a major accident killing majority of the passengers on board. The bus was gutted, and the fact that almost everybody on board perished, raised critical questions about safety of these coaches. The main exit door is driver operated - there is no way others could open it (unless one knows how to operate the door switch). Quite often the buses had only a single door - operators saved money by not having driver doors. The window glasses were laminated glasses - so breaking them were not an option either. There was another fire accident a few weeks later that killed 3 passengers. These two accidents raised very serious questions about the safety of Volvo coaches. Governments took tougher decisions including having smaller fuel tanks and repositioning them, having emergency exit doors and a ban on carrying cargo.
The first Scania bus in India

Volvo received its major competitor in 2013 - with Scania setting foot in India! Until then Scania sold only trucks, in very limited numbers though a partnership with L&T. Scania announced its entry to the Indian market in 2013 - and developed a country specific product as well. This was the beginning of Scania Metrolink's journey in India. While the initial lot of buses were built in Malaysia and sold in India as completely built units, they commenced building bodies in their own body building unit in 2015. Karnataka was the home to both the major intercity luxury bus manufacturers in the country - both Volvo and Scania had their production plants in the outskirts of Bengaluru.
Scania 13.7m coach

My first experience with the Scania was in 2014 - an experience that I really loved, and Scania was truly luxury redefined. The ride quality was superior and the overall experience was luxurious [Read here].  Scania initially sold only the 14.5m variant in the country. The sale of 12m buses were at its abyss in the country, with only tourist operators and operators in hilly regions looking at this variant. Scania didn't seem to be in a hurry to sell 12m buses in the country then. The 13.7m variant of Scania was launched in mid-2015, with KSRTC (Karnataka) being the sole buyer. I happened to try this variant of Scania, the same year [Read here]. The 13.7m product was a let down in my opinion - body roll was on the higher side, and the ride was stiffer. It didn't give the same feel that the 14.5m variant gave. I did try the 12m variant as well [Read here], which offered no awe factor either.
A Scania 12m bus

In the beginning of 2017, Volvo showcased their refreshed line up of offerings. They shortly phased out their best selling model - the Volvo B9R multi-axle coach! They introduced a brand new 12m coach - the Volvo B8R, replacing their older and ageing B7R model. The Volvo B8R had a made-in-India engine and was a completely new product for the world! The B11R was refreshed as well - and was now sold in two variants - the 13.8m variant and the 14.5m variant. The new line-up of Volvoo brought in more sales - and the 14.5m variant soon became a hot seller. 
The all new Volvo B11R - at BusWorld expo 2016

Mercedes Benz didn't take their failure easily - they had moved the commercial vehicles portfolio to Daimler India Commercial Vehicles, which was handling the BharatBenz brand in Indian then. Service support got better, and Mercedes Benz decided to return to the bus industry again. This time they tied up with an Irish bus body builder (their worst mistake, in my opinion) and set up a bus body building plant in the outskirts of Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. The new product was built entirely with Aluminum (a new thing in the country) and appeared chic! The first bus was delivered to KPN Travels in December 2015 - I did manage to try this bus before much later [Read here]. This product was built on the same platform that Mercedes Benz used in their first outing to the country - using a 360hp engine. The second innings of Mercedes Benz didn't go well either - forcing Mercedes to refresh their product 2018 with a better engine (a 410 hp engine) and offered automatic transmission now.
Mercedes Benz 2436 Super High Deck intercity coach

Around the same time (mid of 2018) Scania stopped production of buses in India, and announced its intention to stop the body plant and support existing operators through their service network. Scania did give hints of coming up with a new product line, offered through third-party body builders. Scania had a large stock of buses it had already built, and spent the rest of the time selling them. Scania had to stop production as they hit a roadblock with dwindling sales - plenty of service support issues that created a disrepute among operators. The exit of Scania highlighted the changes in the industry - sales were slowing, and passengers were moving away from Semi-sleeper seater buses. Where did they go to?

The travel industry began its downward dive in 2019 - and a shift in passenger preferences became evident. People moved from Seater buses to Sleeper buses - and people wanted only Sleepers now! More on this in the next part! While you wait for the next part, do visit this old post on my blog where I wrote about my early days of busfanning

Comments

Mac said…
Just when your readers were thinking about the long wait to read your next travelogues, thanks fr coming up with 3 Good ones, this was interesting and with some super info,
ur pics n writing refreshed my memories of having travelled umpteen times in those colourful Rajahamsas, my first Volvo travel from BLR - MNG Ksrtc in 2004-5 with that bus completing the ride in 6 hrs flat , the next one from Borivali MUM- BNG in KSRTC taking 20 hrs, those days!
Binai K Sankar said…
Thanks Mac.. its these comments that keep me going!
Alfie Alex said…
Binai I have been reading your blogs for a long long while say from 2009, very informative and explanations in detail. Keep them coming. Thanks.
Parasakthi said…
I was prepared for a long wait to read the upcoming Thrissur Bangalore trip. Glad you kept the blog going. Also could you post travelogue (you had a Fiat punto if I remember correctly)
rahulvijayev said…
Great job!! Finally the article series which I have been waiting for since long. Thanks for this.
Sunup said…
I suppose Benzy had a tie-up with Akbar Travels of India. During my student days at LBS College of Engg at Kasargod, I used to regularly see buses co-branded with both Akbar and Benzy. My first Volvo trip was from Coimbatore to Ernakulam on a Bangalore<>Ernakulam KaSRTC Airavat B7R. I think it was in 2006. That particular bus had a unique livery and not the usual white livery. I think it had a predominant red. I suppose it was a bus offered on trial and hence the different livery.
Binai K Sankar said…
Akbar and Benzy belong to the same company. Akbar Travels was a travel agency, while Benzy was the brand used on their buses. They still exist with the same names. KSRTC had volvo buses with a red-yellow colour scheme as well, before they standardized the white livery on all buses. KSRTC got their own Volvo buses some time in 2002 - so there is now way they had "trial" buses in 2006.
Vineeth said…
Really great article. It would be fine if you could write about the now defunct but earlier famous operators from Kerala (like Puzhekedavil, Sofiya line, padikkal etc) photos must :)

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